Industry: Built Environment
Products: Milk paint, pigments, and bole clay
Founder and pigment ninja Alex Warren has moved into manufacturing with eco-friendly house paint for the mass market.
Warren moved to San Francisco to go to art school and study painting in the 1980s. That's where he got into pigments, the raw materials for everything from "car paint to nail polish to artist paints."
"That started a love affair with pigments," he says. "I traveled to Europe to study old pigment sources and go to pigment shops. I just really fell in love with it"
He worked for Kremer Pigments in New York after graduating in 1990, then returned to San Francisco to launch Sinopia, named after the ancient Turkish city and pigment of the same name, in 1995.
"The artist community in San Francisco is much more process-oriented than New York," he says. In New York, "it's all about the show."
This initial iteration of Sinopia about sourcing the best pigments from all over the world and marketing them to artists to make their own supplies. "The first 10 or 15 years were all about selling pigment. It was just pigments and all of the accessories to go with it for people to make their own paints," says Warren "It's logistics. You know where to order it and you know what to order. You also have to forecast demand."
When recession hit after the 2008 financial crisis, Sinopia had stores in New York and San Francisco and a team of eight employees. Warren soon shuttered the New York location, laid off his staff, and moved into a smaller shop in San Francisco, where Sinopia "started transitioning to a broader DIY market."
An opportunity arrived in the form of an inquiry from Harley Farms, a goat dairy and cheesery in nearby Pescadero. "They approached me and wanted to make an eco-friendly farm paint," says Warren. "I started reselling it to them and they remarketed it as their farm paint." He calls it "a great R&D period" for Sinopia.
Working with casein protein from milk, Warren created an all-natural, non-toxic alternative to mass-market house paint. Warren says it's eco- and painter-friendly, and wins raves for its coverage.
"You get the durability of an exterior paint, but cleanup is so much nicer," he explains. Because casein is an emulsifier, milk paint can be cleaned up with water. "It actually conditions your brush."
In 2014, Harley Farms scaled back some of its operations and got out of the milk paint business, leading Warren to move it under the Sinopia brand and continue to manufacture at his shop. "I already had all this equipment, had the recipe, and said, 'I'll do my own paint line.'"
He further refined the formulation and process and came up with a palette of colors he could mix with the base, then officially went to market in January 2015. At the same time, he got out of brick-and-mortar retail and moved his pigment business in with paint production in a 700-square-foot warehouse space. "It was a cross of making something that anybody could use, but I wanted to imbue it with my pigment background and the knowledge I have of colors," says Warren.
Sinopia now sells paint through Amazon, mail order, and wholesale as the company continues to sell pigments directly to artists. "The pigment thing pretty much runs itself," says Warren. "I have an amazing mailing list. I can motivate people to buy stuff on a dime. I know that market really well."
Milk paint is a different animal entirely, he adds. "It's such a big market. There are so many potential customers. . . . There's the temptation to walk down the street to Kelly Moore and pick up a gallon of paint and be done with it. Enticing people to buy this all-natural paint, you really have to get creative and explain the qualities to people and explain why to buy that instead of house paint."
Sinopia also manufactures red bole clay for gilding to fill a niche market. "There are only three companies in the world that make it," says Warren. "I make that from scratch as well."
He adds, "I've kind of become a deli that sells the cold cuts and the meats for people who want to make their own sandwiches, but I also make sandwiches and deli platters."
Pigments still make up the majority of sales, but paint sales are growing more rapidly, at a clip of 10 to 20 percent a year. "The growth is sustainable," says Warren, noting he currently brings on contract help to deal with spikes in sales. "I just now feel it's becoming a very well-balanced trilogy of businesses I'm operating at the same time."
Warren mixes the base with pigments on an on-demand basis and ships them out the door. "I basically have myself set up like a house paint store," he says. "I can pivot and fill large orders quickly."
"I call myself 'The Milk Paint Barista,'" he adds. "I hate the word 'passion,' but I'm very passionate about it."
Challenges: "If I were a little bit better with marketing, I could boost the sales of [milk paint]," says Warren.
It follows that he's looking for contract marketing help. "I can't do that all myself," he says. "It's time-consuming, I don't feel like I'm learning it fast enough, and -- to be quite honest -- it's not something I have a lot of interest in."
Opportunities: Cracking into the huge house paint market. "It's just a much bigger market," says Warren. "I've put myself in position now where I can boost sales dramatically. . . . With the pigments and the bole, it's literally just a war of attrition."
Needs: "I'm running out of space," says Warren. He also needs a change of scenery and plans to move the company to a 1,200- to 1,500-square-foot space with a dock in Palm Springs in the next year.
He says San Francisco's cost of living makes for an unbalanced live/work culture. "It's a whole different city now. . . . The challenges of living here outweigh the advantages."